In “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales,” Ishmael takes aim at pictorial misrepresentations of whales from ancient times to the middle of the nineteenth century. According to Ishmael, “the most ancient extant portrait anyways purporting to be the whale’s, is to be found in the famous cavern-pagoda of Elephanta, in India.” I haven’t been to Elephanta yet (though it’s one of the places I intend to see before my posting in the Emirates is over), but the cave sculptures look like this:

Ishmael’s description of Vishnu in the form of a whale (or fish), ” learnedly known as the Matse Avatar,” may owe something to Melville’s reading of T. Maurice’s Indian Antiquities (1800-12), which offers this illustration (source):

Ishmael attributes the misrepresentation of the whale to the fact that most of the illustrators have never gone a-whaling, noting that “most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish; and these are about as correct as a drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hull and spars.”

Even whalers rarely gain a full view of the whale:

The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations.

As a result, Ishmael concludes,

that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.

Ishmael does not imagine that, one hundred years into the future, many of the mysteries of the sperm whale would be revealed through technological advances such as the creation of diving equipment and the development of film and video. Now any landlubber can see views of the sperm whale that Ishmael could only imagine, through video like this:

This clip comes from the wonderful documentay Sperm Whale Oasis. Meanwhile, readers who are interested in the pictures upon which Ishmael draws might consult either Moby-Dick: A Picture Voyage : An Abridged and Illustrated Edition of the Original Classic, edited by Tamia Burt, Joseph D. Thomas, and Marsha L. McCabe, which contains a wealth of images and is in print, or Stuart Frank’s Herman Melville’s Picture Gallery: Sources and Types of the Pictorial Chapters of Moby-Dick, which is not.

“Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales” is read by BBC correspondent Martin Rosenbaum. The illustration that accompanies it is Capital Realism (Ripper) (2012; acrylic and pigment on linen, 60cm x 50cm) by Andrea Medjesi-Jones. (The full title of the piece appears on the artist’s website.

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[Cross-posted with Patell and Waterman’s History of New York]